Reverse Cycling: Why Your Baby Is Breastfeeding All Night (And What To Do About It)

Reverse Cycling: Why Your Baby Is Breastfeeding All Night


Getting your baby to sleep well at night can be challenging enough without factoring feedings into the mix. But what about when your baby’s feeding schedule is the root cause of the constant nighttime wakings? What about when your baby feeds constantly at night and not much during the day? How are you supposed to solve THAT problem?

Never fear. We can help. Read on for details!

Reverse Cycling: What It Is, and Why Some Babies Do It

Speaking of ‘baby breastfeeds constantly at night and not much during the day,’  there’s a term for that. It’s called reverse cycling. Pretty simple, right? Well, the “why” behind why some babies reverse cycle is a little more varied. Babies may reverse cycle for the following reasons:

  • Highly-distractible babies may be too distracted by daytime activity and noise to nurse thoroughly. They’ll make up for lost calories by nursing more thoroughly at night, when there are less distractions.
  • Newborns may reverse cycle because they have their days and nights confused.
  • Babies may go through short spells of reverse cycling, breastfeeding a lot at night, during growth spurts.
  • If you nurse at night, but offer a bottle during the day, your baby may be reverse cycling because she prefers breast to bottle and is eating less during the day for that reason.
  • If you are working outside the home (or are just very, very busy at home during the day), your baby may not be getting quite enough breastmilk during daytime hours, and might be making up for it by nursing frequently at night.

How Reverse Cycling Affects Your Baby’s Sleep

Obviously, if your baby is breastfeeding every hour or two at night, then she’s not doing much sleeping. Neither are you! Now, some babies are pretty efficient “reverse cyclers.”  They will wake often to eat, but they’ll generally nurse and then go right back to sleep. This is especially true for babies who know how to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. These babies generally don’t have strong sleep associations with nursing, and will sleep well between feedings.

However, other babies are fairly awake between feedings and spend far more of their nighttime hours awake and alert. This is especially true for babies who are napping too much during the day, in addition to not nursing frequently. It is also true for newborns who are struggling with day/night confusion and who sleep much of the day.

Reverse Cycling Isn’t All Bad! How Reverse Cycling Can Actually Benefit Working Moms

Now, obviously, many of us find reverse cycling absolutely exhausting and are looking for ways to correct it (more on that in the next section). But there are situations in which reverse cycling actually works in your favor, and makes a lot of sense to continue.

Specifically, we have found that moms who are working full-time outside the home and who are pumping benefit from reverse cycling. It helps to keep their milk supply up, and allows for that special, cuddly bonding time with baby that those moms miss during the day. Moms in this situation often tell us that they make up for lost sleep by going to bed fairly early, and napping on the weekends.

Miriam Chickering, a Baby Sleep Site® sleep consultant who also has a background in lactation consulting, summarizes the pros and cons of reverse cycling this way:

“Reverse cycling is great for moms who enjoy sharing a room or bed and aren’t disturbed by night feeding. Some moms can sleep through most of a feed and report feeling more rested when sharing a bed and reverse cycling. Other moms don’t sleep well at all when bed-sharing. For moms who get out of bed for every feeding, reverse cycling can be brutal!”

How To “Reverse” Reverse Cycling And Reclaim Your Nighttime Sleep

While it’s true that some parents can really benefit from reverse cycling, and may prefer to keep it going for a period of time, we know most of you likely see reverse cycling as a problem and are looking for ways to solve it. Not to worry. We can help with that and help you night wean! Check out our suggestions below for coping with and gently solving your baby’s reverse cycling:

  • FOR NEWBORNS: Your newborn’s reverse cycling is no doubt due to having his days and nights confused. To solve this problem, work on keeping your newborn’s days bright and active. (Don’t nap your newborn in a pitch-black room.) Play with your baby for a bit between feedings. Then, focus on keeping nights dark and boring. Feed your baby and put him right back to sleep in a dark room. This will help to gently shift your baby’s circadian rhythms.
  • FOR DISTRACTIBLE BABIES: If your baby’s a distracted eater, Miriam has these recommendations to offer:

    “When reverse cycling is related to a baby being distracted we want to encourage the baby to take more calories during the day. Many babies will feed very well about 15-20 minutes prior to a nap. Mom can try wearing a nursing necklace and talking/playing with her baby during the feeding. Another option is to nurse in a dark room using white noise and providing some rhythmic motion like rocking.”

    It’s also a good idea to remember that things in your environment may be distracting your baby – like the noise of the TV, or the noise of other family members. Do your best to eliminate any known distractions during feeding time.

  • FOR BUSY MOMS: For you mamas that work part-time, or who stay-at-home full time – we know you’re plenty busy! If you stay home with your little one, but find yourself too busy and rushed during the day to allow appropriate time for your baby’s feeds, try clearing your schedule for about two weeks. Make a concerted effort to give your baby plenty of time to complete each daytime feeding. How long your baby needs to feed depends a lot on age (newborns may need up to 45 minutes or more, while older babies may need just 10 or 15 minutes). But, if your baby’s reverse cycling, you’ll want to allow extra time at each daytime feed, to ensure your baby is getting enough daytime nourishment. If you’re separated from your baby for large chunks of time during the day, due to work (or something else), Miriam has these tips to share:

    “For babies who reverse cycle due to separation from mom during the day, it’s important for child care providers to provide frequent feeding opportunities. You may be able to cluster feed in the afternoon and offer 2-3 feedings during the night with one 5 hour sleep stretch for both mom and baby. Then you can offer a feeding or two before work, depending on when you need to leave for the day. With my youngest son, I often would wake him for a feeding before I headed out the door at 5 am. It can take a week or two to find the option that works best for you and your baby. You may have to try a few different things before finding the right balance of night feeding and daytime feeding, but it’s important to keep trying.”

  • FOR BABIES WHO ARE REJECTING THE BOTTLE: This is a truly tough and frustrating problem to deal with. There are lots of different tips and tricks out there. Some things work for some parents, but not for others! In general, it’s best to keep at it until you find a technique that works for you. Some parents find it’s helpful to feed their baby a bottle in a totally different position than you use when you breastfeed (i.e. upright in the car seat). Other parents find that they have to go through a trial-and-error process to find just the right bottle and nipple. Still, others find that mom can’t be in the room at all during a bottle feed. They learn that it’s best if another caregiver offers baby the bottle. As for actual bottle-feeding technique – this Kellymom article offers great tips on how to offer a breastfed baby a bottle in a way that simulates breastfeeding and helps you avoid some of the complications of bottle feeding.
  • FOR BABIES GOING THROUGH A GROWTH SPURT: There’s really no “fix” for this. You can’t rush a growth spurt! Your best bet is just to do plenty of extra nighttime nursing for the duration of the growth spurt. Trust that your baby will return to normal sleeping habits once the spurt is done. You may want to sleep near your baby during this time so that it’s easier to nurse often at night.
  • FOR ALL OTHER SITUATIONS: You and your baby don’t fit into any of these categories? It may very well be that your baby has a really strong sleep association with nursing. The constant nighttime nursing then has more to do with your baby’s need to nurse to sleep than it does with your baby’s need to eat. In this case, your solution would be to work on helping your baby learn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. You can accomplish that by sleep coaching. And that’s a process we can help you with!

Have reverse cycling, sleep coaching, or breastfeeding questions? We’re here to help!

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